Theatre review: Brassed Off @ York Theatre Royal

Published by theartsdesk

VIDEO: Brassed Off trailer

Only a particularly hard heart would fail to be moved by the sheer scale of community fragmentation around the time of the Miners' Strike – for many, the single most devastating period in the north of England's social history. But maybe, just maybe, this Brassed Off  play is not quite as stirring as it should be.

Adapted by Paul Allen from the classic 1996 film, the story about a colliery and its brass band has been revived at York Theatre Royal to mark the strike's 30th anniversary year. Pulling the strings is Damian Cruden, an award-winning director of such vision and skill that his involvement in something even slightly by-the-numbers is kind of surprising.

The production retains all of the film's best lines and makes much of its rugged humour – and that's just as well, because Mark Herman's original screenplay largely spoke for itself. A theatrical spectacle, though, this unfortunately is not. Too often does the emotion feel lukewarm, the scenes one-dimensional, and the plot rushed. This is particularly evident when conductor Danny (John McArdle) steps up to deliver an acceptance speech when his brass band of brothers triumphs at the national championships, soon after losing their jobs at the mine.

"I thought music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter," is such a powerful and definitive line, and everyone in this audience knows it. After all, we sit a mere 40-odd miles away from the former mining village of Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, on which the fictional Grimley and its colliery band are based. We’re huge Brassed Off fans. However, McArdle's stoic delivery spoils it, compromising an otherwise solid performance by the former Brookside actor, and highlighting exactly how much of a difficult act to follow the late, great Pete Postlethwaite remains.

That said, there are some redeeming qualities in the rest of the cast. More remarkable are Clara Darcy's Gloria, James Robinson's Andy, Rebecca Clay's Sandra and Andrew Roberts-Palmer's Harry, while the dark horse of the show is Luke Adamson, whose role as Phil’s young son Shane – a fun-loving boy slowly grasping what is happening to his family’s livelihood in Grimley – is a key difference between play and film. Adamson featured prominently in last year's First World War outdoor epic Blood + Chocolate, and has the part of 'the honest lad' down to a tee.

Also noteworthy is Dawn Allsopp's evocative set design, and the large ensemble of local musicians, whose renditions of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and other numbers are very strong – however undermined by the pop music bridging each scene.

Brassed Off  will always bring the house down. There’s no doubt about that. Given its true-story against-all-odds struggle for the notion of community, it completely deserves to. And yet, despite having all the sadness, anger, despair, desperation, love, laughter and joy to play with, somehow this production lacks emotional punch.


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A Small White Snippet of Paper and a Long Hair

The bus gives me an erection. Something to do with the grooves in the road, or the vibrations of the engine, has aroused my lower half again. I am still waking up, and certainly not in the mood. I don’t bother to adjust anything. Nobody cares. The fold in the crotch of my trousers makes me look like I have an erection anyway, and the only other guy on board is the driver.

Rolling past the window is a patchwork of green, yellow and brown fields, fading into the horizon that encloses the area. It sometimes feels like living inside a cereal bowl here. Up close are the horned railings of the park, a large dog looking out of the window of a terraced house, a closed fish & chips shop that was once allegedly the best in the country. A bald man dropping an empty can into a rubbish bin. I assume. It is black outside. I can’t actually see a thing.

My forehead leaves a greasy mark when it comes unstuck from the glass. I stretch and rub my eyes. And yawn, which always makes me cough, these days. The engine’s gentle buzzes and hums carry me into the real world. Drumming a beat on my teeth and lightly slapping my thighs, I am thinking clearer with every second that goes by. A cloud disappears behind my eyes. My mouth moistens. With my arm hanging over the back of my seat and my back against the window, I slouch on my seat, my limp legs facing the aisle. A floor drizzled with watery dirt, decorated in various boot-prints. An ugly combination of oranges, purples and blues scorch each empty seat, lining the aisle, evoking visual memories – contextless but creepy. A STOPPING sign that illuminates when someone wants to get off. A black box for used tickets. An empty crisp packet. Old, dark stains. This is my bus, and I’ve almost lost my erection.

In my dream, I was being assessed for a performance of a song. I was supposed to sing the song accompanied by another guy, blurry, on piano. But we couldn’t find the two copies of the music necessary for us to perform the piece together. The song was Andrea Boticelli’s Con te Partiro, I remember, before the remaining details vanish from, or back into, my subconscious.

I don’t recall boarding the bus. I try to. Sometime between waking and sleeping, I must have hung around underneath the sodium spotlight at the stop when the bus pulled in. Mumbled my destination to the driver – John, or Jack – and handed over a note. Stared at the harsh industrial folds in his shirt as I waited for my change. Shuffled onto one of the seats. (Who designs the patterns on bus seats?) Fell asleep against the window. That’s how things should have gone for me, and that’s how things probably did go. I just can’t remember. My eyes still sting a little between blinks.

It would help if I could see outside – see where the hell I am. The only clue I have are the vibrations I feel through my seat. Smooth, steady. I haven’t felt the bus turning for a while, so I figure I am probably on a long road. The driver at the front has his hands at the wheel, and sits at such an angle that I can only see the outline of his jaw from the side – jowly, vessel-burst cheeks and the kidney-shaped nostrils of a straight, aquiline nose. He doesn’t whistle like other drivers. He isn’t even moving a great deal.

I can’t just go up to the driver and ask where the bus is going. That’s out of the question. I could just wait for it to get light, but what if it’s like two in the morning? I start fumbling, urgently. Where the fuck is my phone? I dig three fingers into my left, then my right pocket, and wriggle them around. Both pockets feel light. In fact, they are empty. No wallet, no keys, no phone? And where am I? This is ridiculous.

Oh, but a small white snippet of paper, and a long hair, which emerges between my two fingers on their way out of my back pocket. It is my ticket, probably, but it is almost blank. The faded sans serif print looks like it has been worn away over the past dozen washing cycles. I know I’m going to have to ask the driver where I am. Lay on the apologies, explain how I’ve lost everything, be self-deprecating about it.

But then the STOPPING light illuminates and pings. I haven’t touched anything, I haven’t pressed stop. Someone else is on the bus. I twitch. A shiver climbs up my spine. I gaze around, eyes wide. Just empty seats.

The STOPPING light’s accompanying ping finally rings out, and out of nowhere, a shoe. Out of nowhere, a shoe. A shoe I see. A shoe. I haven’t seen it before, but there it is. A shoe. A sneaker. Laces dangling from worn canvas. The shoe, the sneaker, the foot, is not moving, as far as I can see, gazing up into the panoramic mirror above me.

My stomach feels like it does when I’ve just driven over a bump in the road. Wait, we might have done. It is clear that whoever is wearing the shoe is now sat up straight at the back of the bus. And then this figure stands up straight. Oh… fuck. A tall, slinky, definitely male, figure, looming over – his shape menacingly manipulated in the bloated hemispherical reflection above me. Oh fuck. He enters my peripheral vision, sits down, and I can see him trying to make eye contact. Oh fuck, it’s him. He sits down and grins.

“Do you have my stuff?” I say.

He says, “Why did you do it?”

He holds my gaze, even while wiping away yellow crust from his eyes. He licks his dry lips and waits for an answer, as I wait for my answer.

“Why did you do it?” he says again.

It is a simple question. Remembering everything, I wish I knew. Why. He has stopped smiling now. I know I will probably answer his question first.

The bus slows. The heat rises from the vents by my feet, making the windows weep. Condensation beads merge and trickle down onto the rubber borders of the glass. It is still black outside. No streetlights, nor the jewel moon, will cast a sparkle on anything, ever again.


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